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Owen Roddy never reached the summit but he carved a path for others who did

Conor McGregor’s striking coach narrowly missed out on the big payday he spent years pursuing as a fighter.

inpho_01017519 (1) Source: INPHO/Raymond Spencer

DOWN A NARROW laneway between Phibsboro Road and the North Circular Road in Dublin, there’s a shed with a black door. There are several of them actually, but this one is particularly ramshackle and rundown — and that’s just on the outside. The inside, according to those who have seen it, is even worse.

The current headquarters of Straight Blast Gym in Dublin is a large, bright, modern, state-of-the-art facility just beyond the Bluebell LUAS stop on the Naas Road. A banner that hangs above the entrance lets you know that this is the home of a world champion, whose BMW sports car can often be found in front of the main door.

It’s now one of the best gyms in the MMA world and the other branches of SBG that have sprouted up in places like Tallaght and Swords are adhering to those standards too.

As for the shed and the 450 square feet behind the black door, for all John Kavanagh knows it’s now probably being used to store some gardening tools and tins of paint. But 15 years ago, when Kavanagh began paying £400 a month to rent it from the owner of the house at the front, it became the birthplace of mixed martial arts in Ireland.

Kavanagh, the head coach and owner of SBG Ireland, trained there with the likes of Andy Ryan, Dave Roche and Dave Jones, who would all prove to be central to the growth of the sport in this country. Someone Kavanagh didn’t initially expect to be so pivotal, however, was an 18-year-old who turned up at the shed one day and asked if he could train.

Screen Shot 2016-11-03 at 18.06.43 The birthplace of mixed martial arts in Ireland. Source: Reel View

“It was small and it was dingy,” recalls Owen Roddy. “It was literally somebody’s shed in their back garden. It was freezing cold in there; no heating, a little toilet in the corner, the ceiling was falling in, it was damp — but I still thought it was cool.”

Roddy knew Dave Roche from Ballymun and asked him if he could tag along one evening to Kavanagh’s shed. Roche didn’t object, but the problem for Roddy was that he couldn’t afford the training fees. Nevertheless, they found a solution.

I ended up cleaning the mats and John let me train for free.

“I was allowed to be part of every session as long as I cleaned the mats once a week. And it was handy because there was only about five or six mats. The place was tiny,” Roddy says.

He had already been introduced to mixed martial arts by then — or cage-fighting, as Roddy referred to it at the time. Of all places, his first encounter with the sport was in the hall at Trinity Comprehensive Secondary School in Ballymun.

He explains: “I was always fascinated by martial arts from watching [Jean Claude] Van Damme, Bruce Lee, stuff like that. I had done a bit of shotokan [karate] as well. Then when I was about 17, after getting a lend of a UFC tape, I became very curious about what that was.

“Someone told me that it was called MMA and I had been trying to find out where I could learn how to do it for quite a while. I was walking through my school one day and Andy Ryan was there showing the transition year students how to do submissions and a bit of judo.

“When I saw that I walked in and said to Andy, ‘That’s that MMA, that’s that cage-fighting stuff, isn’t it? Where do you do that?’ I went down to Andy’s place in Killester first and then I ended up in John’s from there.”

Ryan, Kavanagh and the others who frequented the shed were pioneers for MMA in Ireland. However, at that point they were still novices, educating themselves with technique demonstrations that were illustrated in videos and magazines. It was a process of trial and error on the thin mats that Roddy was responsible for keeping clean.

“People hadn’t a clue what MMA was back in those days. Nobody knew what we were doing — we barely knew ourselves! — but it was cool to be doing it,” Roddy says.

“It was a great time. Now we have luxuries like huge matted areas, cages, rings, strength and conditioning areas, everything you need. Back then it was a case of get in, get the job done with what you had — which was basically nothing — and get out.

“But we were all learning quickly. Everyone who trained there was enthusiastic about improving and one person’s enthusiasm would rub off on another, and that had a positive impact on everyone. When I went to train with John and the lads, I could see straight away that this was real.

This was it. This was what I had been looking for.

“I was addicted straight away because nobody else was doing it. I had been looking in the ad sections in the papers every day. I’d ring these other places up and say ‘Is this cage-fighting?’ and they’d say ‘Yeah’, but then when you’d go up you’d see that it wasn’t at all.

“Every martial art was claiming to be the best street defence or the best self-defence out there, but when you went to these places it wasn’t. Everything they did was planned and choreographed. It wasn’t real. There’s no planning a real fight. But it was different with MMA. When that path opened up, I never looked back.”

After leaving school, Roddy was earning decent money by working as a warehouse operative. However, his view was that every hour in the warehouse was a wasted hour that could have been spent on the mats. The numbers in Kavanagh’s gym – which was eventually upgraded to a more suitable building in Harold’s Cross — were growing steadily and an MMA scene was developing in the UK and Ireland.

12745544_574505119380481_4144618931479395824_n Source: Tommy Lakes

“I really wanted to see where MMA would take me,” Roddy says. “I was quite a while training at this point and I was getting really good. I was probably one of the best in the country because I was one of the best in John’s gym and we were the best gym in Ireland.

“After about a year working in that job, John asked me if I wanted to set up a kids’ programme; split the profits or whatever. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a go’. That started up and I was getting a few hundred quid a month. And that convinced me to give up the job. I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to become a pro fighter and see where this road goes’. I gave in my notice and started teaching and training every day.

“I was looking at the scene over in the UK and thinking, ‘You know what, I could hang with any of these guys’. Dave Roche and John were still fighting at the time, getting a few bob here and there for fights.

You’d hear stories about 10-grand tournaments and stuff. That just convinced me that I might be able to make a bit of a career out of this.

“Lightweight was still the lowest weight class in the UFC at that stage. Realistically the UFC wasn’t attainable then but I still thought I could make a few bob. I just wanted to fight as well. I just wanted to compete and prove myself. But yeah, it only took me about a year to feel like I had the potential to go places.”

Roddy made his professional debut in 2005 but finding fights on a regular basis was no easy task: “MMA was underground. It really was. Nobody knew anything about it. There weren’t really any shows in Ireland for a while at first. You used to have to get on to these MMA forums online to try and see if you could get a fight.

“Dave [Roche] would be dropping me home to Ballymun from training and we’d stop into an internet cafe and see what shows were coming up over in the UK and chatting about what was going on. But it was real underground stuff, whereas now it’s everywhere. Fights were really scarce back then and you’d have to really go looking if you wanted one.”

12728876_574505046047155_2385331358122992965_n Source: Tommy Lakes

The scene developed gradually, however, and by 2012 Roddy was regarded as one of the top featherweights in Europe who had yet to reach the UFC. Promotions like Cage Warriors and Cage Contender were offering Irish fighters opportunities to test themselves against quality opponents on events which were being broadcast to relatively substantial audiences by the likes of Setanta Sports.

When Roddy was booked to face Shannon Gugerty in Dublin in July 2012, he knew he was in for the biggest challenge of his career. He had won his last six fights on the trot and the UFC contract that had previously seemed unattainable was now within reach. Facing a man who had already competed on MMA’s biggest stage on five occasions offered him a chance to show that he was ready for the step-up.

At that point, for an Irishman to fight a UFC veteran was a big deal.

“Apart from Tom Egan’s fight [at UFC Dublin in 2009] there was no Irishman who had fought in the UFC at that stage,” Roddy explains. “Fighting a UFC veteran was massive.”

Seemingly on the verge of being forced to tap, Roddy somehow managed to escape from a rear-naked choke from Gugerty in the first round, before going on to win via unanimous decision. His seventh consecutive win represented his biggest scalp so far and it took his record to a very respectable 11-3.

A victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, it was further evidence of the refusal to give in that Roddy had become renowned for; a quality he demonstrated on many occasions during his career with actions, not words, and something he’d call upon again in his next fight as the scale of the challenges continued to increase.

Source: Cage Contender/YouTube

Earlier this year, Wilson Reis was chosen to be the next challenger to dominant UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. But ask Reis who his toughest opponents were and you’re likely to hear Roddy’s name mentioned. He got the better of Roddy in Glasgow in a bantamweight bout in December 2012, but the Dubliner made the experienced Brazilian dig deep for the victory.

Reis took the first round but Roddy fought back to win the second. He also appeared to have the momentum behind him in the early stages of the third and final frame of a thrilling contest. However, when Roddy ate a shot that knocked him to the ground, Reis pounced and worked his way into a rear-naked choke.

Again, Roddy refused to quit. But this time there was no way out. As Roddy briefly drifted out of consciousness, referee Marc Goddard stepped in to award the win to an elated Reis, whose expression of relief was telling. Roddy had come up short but the bout marked one of the rare occasions that a fighter managed to enhance their reputation in spite of a defeat.

That Wilson Reis fight was a huge test. Nobody wanted to fight him.

“It was my first time cutting down to bantam, the weight cut went perfectly and I felt fantastic,” Roddy insists. “It felt like I was ahead in that third round, my confidence was building and I was busting him up on the feet.

“But unfortunately I got clipped and ended up losing. In my head I felt that he was one of the best fighters around at the time at bantamweight. Going into that fight, even though I didn’t beat him, I had my moments and it was very close. It just made me feel like I could hang with the best in the world.”

Therefore, it came as a massive surprise in 2013 when Roddy announced from left-field that he had decided to retire at the age of 30. By now he was still coaching regularly at SBG headquarters, as well as at his own gym in Charlestown. His fighting career was still on the rise, but balancing those commitments was only becoming more difficult. In the end, his fighting prime came a little too soon for Ireland’s MMA boom.

inpho_01104052 Source: INPHO/Gary Carr

Roddy: “The money’s not great, you’re struggling, running a full-time gym and trying to train full-time yourself as well. That’s why I called it a day. Losing the [Wilson Reis] fight wasn’t the issue. I just felt like I wasn’t getting what I deserved.

“All my fights were tough, hard fights and you’re just left there thinking, ‘What’s the point? You’re getting nothing’. A pat on the back isn’t enough when you’re putting that much into it. I was in the game a long, long time, fighting for about eight or nine years at that stage.

It’s all well and good to be chasing a dream but you have to be smart about it as well.”

In an excellent documentary, Ten Thousand Hours, which was produced by Severe MMA in 2012, Owen Roddy explained what was at the top of his list of priorities: “I just want to get in there [the UFC] and get the big payday. I’m doing this a long time and I think I deserve it.”

Looking back with the benefit of four years of hindsight, he says now: “I set a goal when I first started training to fight in the UFC, as unrealistic as it may have been at the time. Unfortunately it never came to pass and that does frustrate me.

“But all along, it was all geared towards wanting to be able to buy a house. I wanted my career to be enough to get me a house, and even though I retired earlier than what people were maybe expecting, I got the house in the end.

“I’m doing pretty well now in regards to my gym and stuff like that. I’m doing fine financially. But I never got to lace the gloves up in the UFC. That’s what kills me. But you can’t dwell on stuff like that because it’ll eat you up.

Source: SBG CHARLESTOWN/YouTube

“I’d like to think I was before my time. If I was doing it now I probably would have made a lot more for myself, because I would have been fighting in the UFC and at least making a half-decent amount of money. But you have to be clever. You have to go in at the right time, give yourself a few years in there and get out. Then look down the line into coaching or other aspects of the sport.”

Roddy’s reputation as a coach is growing, to the extent that he’s now more well-known than he ever was as an active fighter. He’s overseeing the development of some exciting young fighters and playing a key role in Conor McGregor’s set-up, serving as the UFC featherweight champion’s striking coach. Roddy doesn’t just deal in stand-up combat either, as evidenced by the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt that has adorned his waist since February.

In the eyes of many fans, Roddy knows he’s the guy holding pads for Conor McGregor in training videos and open workouts, but there’s much more than meets the eye to his current life as a coach and his past as a fighter.

The people who matter to Roddy know how far he went and how hard he worked to get there. Missing out on fighting under the bright lights in the UFC is a regret that will probably always linger, but with his coaching commitments, Roddy is fortunate to have another outlet that compensates.

It’s great. I get people saying, ‘Oh you’re Conor’s striking coach, did you ever fight?’ Then they’ll check you out on YouTube and they’re like ‘Oh my God, you were good!’ And that’s good. It’s good that people can do that.

“I don’t mind either way,” Roddy says. “I’m starting to make my name as a coach and that’s great. I’m known now worldwide as Conor’s striking coach, which is brilliant.

“That’s going to give me a great platform for my own fighters, and now one or two of them are starting to turn pro and they’re starting to get there. My journey as a coach is only starting and I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes. That’ll be my path now.”

If McGregor is victorious against Eddie Alvarez in New York on Saturday night, Roddy will fade into the background when the celebrations begin. But he’ll be satisfied with another job well done as he counts down the hours until he’s back in Dublin with his wife Kellie and their two daughters. And with a new gym — Owen Roddy MMA — due to open shortly in Malahide, opportunities to slow down and take stock are few and far between.

Roddy missed out on experiencing life as a fighter on the biggest stage. Many of his team-mates may have reached the top instead, but they got there by following a path that Roddy helped to construct. Fortunately for him, the only pursuit that ever matched his appetite for competing is his passion for helping others to achieve their goals.

He has played a key role in a team that has brought one of its own to the brink of MMA history at combat’s most famous colosseum — Madison Square Garden. They’ve travelled far to get here, but they’ll still tell you that they’re only just getting started.

Not bad for a journey that began in a garden shed in Phibsboro.

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Paul Dollery

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